We call it the Ollie North International Airport. I have flown in and out of it many times. It lies out on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, near Nosara. It is a tiny airstrip for small planes, originally constructed for training (touch-and-go exercises) and for refueling.
It is one of about eight airstrips built by Oliver North in Costa Rica for support of the Contras. And, as it turns out, it is one of the reasons that three individuals working for the US National Security Council, along with the US ambassador and the local CIA Chief of Station, were barred from Costa Rica for narcotrafficking.
I had heard rumors about this on the Internet. One hears many things on the Internet—some of them true, some of them not. It is not always easy to get the facts. This has been the case especially since a "CIA-drugs" research industry emerged. Some of the kingpins of this research group are into exposure for the same reason that Elmer Gantry was into religion, or that Christine Keeler was into politicians: namely, it's way to make a buck. So they deliver fire and brimstone, and then pass the collection plate. They aren't very concerned whether their information is accurate—only that it supports their thesis.
So I went digging for verification, and found it in the archives of the Costa Rican legislative assembly (Asamblea Legislativa). A special commission had been appointed to investigate the facts concerning narcotrafficking in Costa Rica (Comision Especial Nombrada para Investigar los Hechos Denunciados Sobre Narcotrafico), and it issued its final report on July 20, 1989 in San Jose (Expediente 10.684, Informe Final, San Jose, 20 de Julio de 1989). It wasn't easy to find: they had buried the report down here also.
Recommendation number 13 reads:
13. Que el señor Lewis Tambs, Joe Fernández, Oliver North, John M. Poindexter, Richard V. Secord, no se les permita la entrada al pais. [p. 74]
Here we have three individuals associated with the US National Security Council—John M. Poindexter, Oliver North, Richard V. Secord—as well as the local CIA Chief of Station, Joe Fernández, and the US Ambassador to Costa Rica, Lewis Tambs, all barred from the country. Fifty members of the legislative assembly voted to approve the report with its recommendations. Two members did not. One of these two—Leonel Salazar Villalobos—is now himself in prison for narcotrafficking.
General Manuel Noriega of Panama is important to the story. Noriega was the key to drug transport through Central America during the early to mid-1980s. My story, however, will not stop with the Costa Rican legislative report of July 1989. Rather, it will be brought forward to the present day, to the year 2001. For there is a new drug kingpin in town, a new "General Noriega," a new man who is key to the Central American transport and distribution zone. In due course in this series I will name him, and I will back up my assertions with documented facts.
But first things first. Let's begin in the 1980s when Oliver North opened up a narcotrafficking pipeline through Costa Rica. The pipeline is still here, and Ollie North is still persona non grata.
The Southern Front, Noriega, and North
It is a simple fact of geography that Costa Rica lies between Panama, to the south, and Nicaragua, to the north. The "Southern Front" were the Contras under Eden Pastora on the southern border of Nicaragua—in the northern frontier of Costa Rica. North's objective was to supply them with arms, food, fuel, and whatever else was needed to fight the Sandinistas. In this respect, there were already remnants of a network in place—one that had been used previously to supply the Sandinistas themselves against the Nicaraguan government of Somoza. This group was already experienced in dealing with the logistic problems.
A key person used by North in organizing the Southern Front was John Floyd Hull Clark ("John Hull"), who had lived in Costa Rica for about 20 years at the time he applied for Costa Rican citizenship in 1983. Sometime in the early 1980s he became a CIA asset—convenient, since he owned a lot of property in the north of Costa Rica. Since CIA funds for the Contras had been largely cut off, CIA Director Bill Casey had given North access to many of the CIA's Central American assets.
Now, the legislative report and the accompanying documents are specific in many details, but are weak in others. I have supplemented them with various firsthand sources—Costa Rican and others. These sources generally express respect for Richard Secord, contempt for Oliver North, and say Hull "was not a bad guy." For whatever reason, Hull had become a tool of the CIA and did what he was told. For this, he suffered. Drug flights (by contrast to others involving munitions and supplies) were generally supposed to avoid the landing strips on Hull's property. But when one of Noriega's pilots (Teofilo Watson) mistakenly landed on one of Hull's runways, and lost 1200 pounds of cocaine, the Medellin cartel came to believe Hull had stolen the shipment, and so kidnapped Hull's daughter. They only released her once it became clear Hull was not involved.
Down south in Panama, North appealed to Noriega for assistance to the Contras. Noriega was an ideal ally. He could help by providing planes and pilots. And, due to his close relationship with the Medellin cartel, he could arrange for financing.
Noriega could also help in other way. Shipments of lethal munitions were sometimes organized by Richard Secord. On at least two occasions Secord sent a C-123 loaded with munitions through Costa Rica's main airport—the Juan Santamaria Airport in San Jose. The C-123 was marked as belonging to the Panamanian Air Force. Secord's legislative allies in the Costa Rican legislative assembly included Luis Manuel Chacon Jimenez, Luis Fishman Zonzinski, and the aforementioned Leonel Villalobos Salazar.
Weapons shipments (and weapons purchases) were financed, in various forms, by drug shipments. Noreiga provided his stable of drug pilots to do double duty. Weapons shipments ended up in northern Costa Rica. For drug shipments from Colombia, Costa Rica was only a refueling stop. The planes would then fly over or around Nicaragua, the drugs ultimately destined for Mexico and the United States.
Noriega's drug pilots were overseen by the Panamanian pilot Floyd Carlton Caceres. The other pilots in the network included two Panamanians (Teofilo Watson and Anibal Antonio Aizpruna), two Mexicans (Alejandro Benitez and Cecilio Saenz), one Colombian (Rodrigo Ortiz), and one Spaniard (Miguel Alemany Soto).
The planes would refuel at the Costa Rican landing strips in Tamarindo, Sardinal, Las Loras, Llano Grande, Ciruelas, and Coyolar. Security at these sites was provided by the Costa Rican Colonel Edwin Viales Rodriquez, the former Department Chief of the Rural Assistance Guard in Guanacaste. (Costa Rica has no actual military.) Meanwhile, the US had secured Costa Rica's cooperation in allowing flights "to aid the Contras" with promises of economic aid and of military protection in case of invasion of Costa Rica by the Sandinistas.
So, under the aegis of Contra support, Oliver North helped turn Costa Rica into an international drug pipeline.
(to be continued)